December 10 2013 Latest news:
Friday, November 16, 2012
Nelson Street already boasts award winning pub the Fat Cat, now add to that the Reading Rooms, a back-street café with big ambitions. SARAH BREALEY is charmed.
It might be my new holy trinity of Norwich: a perfect pub, a decent independent bike shop, and now a rather lovely café. I refer to a few square yards of quiet back street just off Dereham Road, in which can be found the Fat Cat, Street Life, and the newest addition, the Reading Rooms.
The standard of Norwich cafés seems to be going ever higher. Just offering home-made cake no longer sets you apart: the Reading Rooms boasts home-made everything.
When we visited only the baked beans had been made in a factory, but even those will be replaced soon by proper home-made Boston baked beans.
Breakfasts, served all day, are a strong point, covering buttermilk pancakes, eggs in umpteen variations, and a full English with local sausages and black pudding. I’m not sure if I approve of “his” and “hers” options though – do we need gendered breakfasts when we have perfectly good words such as “large” and “small”?
Veggie breakfast was a model of its kind: field mushroom, grilled tomatoes, beans, eggs and toast.
So far, so conventional – a meaty breakfast with the meat taken out. But if you go for the “full” rather than “light” (the gendering seems to have stopped here, presumably because they think only women order veggie breakfasts) then you get halloumi and veggie black pudding too. It was advertised as sesame halloumi, though I couldn’t detect sesame, and it could have taken a touch more cooking to tease character from the cheese, but I confess I am nitpicking. The scrambled eggs were perfectly creamy, the mushroom juicy. As for the veggie pudding, it was a clever blend of beetroot, kidney beans, onion, and spices that looked not unlike black pudding and tasted remarkably good. So much so, in fact, that I thought they should make it into veggie burgers too and put those on the menu.
As things stand you can have a chorizo burger – a fat, juicy home-made burger with the chorizo lending a punchy flavour to the ground beef. Gilding the lily it may be, but it comes with melted Emmental cheese and red onion marmalade. On the side are some chips (home-made of course) and a little pot of sweet chilli sauce, so bright and fresh that it demanded the last drops be eaten with a spoon.
We also tried the soup of the day – a creamy, well-rounded winter vegetable, which could have been a fraction hotter. There are just a few other dishes – steak sandwich, goats’ cheese salad, fish cakes – but more may be on the way.
We were unable to try the just-baked brownie (still too hot to be sliced) but went for a Victoria sponge and a dark chocolate cake with white chocolate icing instead. Both were very creditable, even if I would have preferred a stronger-tasting jam in the sponge (I couldn’t identify it, though the colour suggested apricot. Raspberry is classic for a reason).
The Reading Rooms is unlicensed, but there are Fentiman’s soft drinks and loose leaf teas in interesting flavours. It’s a nice environment for lingering with a cuppa: wooden tables, pale walls, regularly-changing pictures by local artists. Roses in pretty pastels were a nice touch on the tables. Children are particularly welcome, with small portions available, changing facilities and even a book club for the under-fives on Thursday mornings. It’s worth looking out for occasional special events, such as themed dinners.
According to its own description the Reading Rooms is “Norwich’s gourmet café”. There’s quite a bit of competition for that title (think back to last week’s review of Café 33, for example), but a good start has definitely been made. Those home-made baked beans might even clinch it.
THE READING ROOMS
Open: Mon-Sun 8.30am-6pm
Prices: Steak sandwich 8.95, chorizo burger £7.95, full Norfolk breakfast £6.50/£7.95, cake £2.50
Vegetarian options: Yes, and they can cater for vegans too
Wheelchair access: Yes